Monday, 20 June 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators

In the first #CoverKidsBooks blog, we learned that children's books get just 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  We then interviewed booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and experts about this situation, and found overwhelming support for more media coverage.  Now, in our final interview blog, we hear from writers and illustrators.

We spoke to Chris Riddell, the Children's Laureate; Malorie Blackman, former Children's Laureate; Philip Pullman, winner of the overall Whitbread Book Of The Year; Frances Hardinge, winner of the overall Costa Book Of The Year; Francesca Simon, one of the UK's most popular authors; and Sarah McIntyre, one of the UK's most popular illustrators.

Why is it important for the media to cover children's books?

Malorie Blackman: It is so important to bring books to our children and our children to books.  A child who loves reading grows up to be an adult who loves reading.  If we want our book industry to not just survive but thrive then we have to ensure our children are switched on to reading.  Children's book reviews are an important way to let parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and YAs know what's out there.

Francesca Simon: It's very important that children's books be part of our cultural discussion.  It shouldn't be treated as a specialist interest.  I think anyone with an interest in books should have a very strong interest in children's books – especially at the moment, when there's so many incredible books being published.

Philip Pullman: There ought to be a space in the mainstream media, in the book pages, for coverage of children's books.  It's important that the general reader sees children's books being discussed intelligently, and not by children.  You need to have a fairly good backlog of reading experience before you can criticise a book justly, and say what its merits and its flaws are.  Children don't have that.

Sarah McIntyre: Children's books are a huge part of the book market.  You can see the shift in bookshops: children's book areas used to be at the back and now they're in front-of-shop displays.  I can only assume the media aren't as interested in reporting on children's books because they don't see the majority of their viewers and readers as children.  But many will be parents, people looking to buy books for friends' children, teachers, and adults who genuinely love children's books for themselves.

Frances Hardinge: It matters because younger readers have as much right to find the books that are perfect for them as older readers do – in fact, possibly slightly more right. 

Chris Riddell:

What is your experience of media coverage?  Have reviews made a difference to you?

PP: One important one that I still regard with great gratitude was Amanda Craig's review of The Subtle Knife.  It was something special.  She said something like: "Once in a generation…" and I thought, "Ah, that's the way to talk about my books!"  It made a big difference to me, and it's quoted on all the paperbacks.  The thing that made the biggest difference, without a doubt, was winning the Whitbread.  Suddenly, I was being talked about on the grown-up pages, and that made a huge difference. 

FH: It definitely does make a difference.  Like a lot of authors, I do the neurotic thing of watching my Amazon sales ranking and hitting 'refresh' a lot.  And whenever a review comes up, there's a spike in sales.  It obviously and immediately results in sales.  The media coverage after The Lie Tree won the Costa Book Of The Year made a huge difference.  But I remember my second book was Children's Book Of The Week in The Sunday Times, and that gave me the biggest sales spike I'd had at that point.  Nicolette Jones is a wonderful champion of children's books, because not only is she passionate, she's so erudite.  She has an acute literary intelligence which I don't think anybody can debate, and therefore her judgement has a lot of weight. 

FS: I remember when I started out, there was no way you could get any kind of press as a children's author.  There was just so little coverage.  So when people asked me, "Do you feel JK Rowling has taken all the publicity?" I said, "What publicity?  There was no publicity to take!"  There's been mega progress.  But still, someone like Julia Donaldson, who is one of the greatest and most successful writers – does Julia get asked to do Front Row?  I have done Front Row, but mainly because I had a maternity cover publicist who came from adult books, and didn't know that children's authors were never put up for it!

What are the consequences of the media not covering children's books?

SM: Only a few writers are earning almost all the money, and the media is encouraging this by only bigging up a few of them.  This makes it difficult for other writers and illustrators to build names for themselves and develop enough of a career to do the job for a living.  So this makes getting published the realm of the already-wealthy.  People from poorer backgrounds will have an extremely hard time getting a foot in the door, and not only will these people miss out on amazing careers, but readers will miss out on getting books from diverse backgrounds.

MB: Placing books into the hands of our children and teens has long term benefits which perhaps cannot be immediately measured, but as Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts."

FH: It depends how long it goes on for.  Children's literature is thriving enough that hopefully it won't result in a loss of variety.  It's likely to result in some interesting young authors who don't get reviewed finding it hard to make ends meet.  And then there's all the tiny tragedies of children not finding books they would've loved.  There isn't a single right book for all 10 year olds, any more than there is a single right book for all 30 year olds.  A wide range of reviews means each child has a better chance of getting that one book that's right for them.

PP: It is probably felt by children's book reviewers and editors that we have so little space, we should use that space celebrating the ones that are good.  So you don't often see a children's book taken to pieces and revealed as a steaming heap of crap – though some of them are.  We regularly see that sort of thing with adult books, but in justice, we ought to see negative criticism occasionally. 

"There isn't a single right book for all 10 year olds"

Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  How do you feel about this under-representation?

PP: It does sound wrong, doesn't it?  To up the content of the book pages from 3% to 30% children's books would be great for children's books and great for children's authors.  There might be room for these negative reviews, which I'm so keen on seeing!  I wonder how adult readers who haven't got a child or aren't particularly involved in children would feel about it?  I don't think many would read the latest Allan Ahlberg unless they had children.  They would love it if they did.  The greatest picture books could well win – or should well win – things like Nobel Prizes.  Why not?  Where The Wild Things Are is well worthy of a Nobel Prize, in my view. 

SM: They tend to talk about a very narrow range of books.  Can you imagine the book review sections having such a narrow range of authors for adults?

MB: I'd love to see children's books getting far more media coverage than they currently do.  YA book bloggers in particular have proven that there is an eager and receptive market for these book reviews.  There is of course a wider context to this – the proven benefits that accompany reading for pleasure as far as our children and teens are concerned.  Also, more and more adults are now reading books written for the YA market, so it seems to me to make sense that this growing reading market is taken more seriously.

FS: I think it's terrible.  Newspapers are really missing a trick.  If they're worried about declining readership, having a strong children's book section is important.  Readers are interested!

What would you like to see the media doing?

FS: I think they should have at least one or two long reviews every week.  Children's books deserve it, and it's harsh if you only give them a couple of lines.  They need to understand that you can write about children's books for an adult audience.  The main thing is having expert people writing well and authoritatively about it, in the same way that you'd have knowledgeable literary critics.  And I think it is important to do it regularly, because then you look for it.

MB: I'd love to see more in-depth interviews with children's authors and illustrators about their lives and their work and regular, frequent children's book reviews which don't feel like an afterthought or an adjunct to reviews of adult books.  Children's books and books for young adults are not the poor relation of book publishing.  More mainstream media outlets need to recognise this fact.

SM: Mentioning illustrator names would be an obvious and simple start!  And interviewing illustrators as well as writers (Pictures Mean Business).  I don't think the media has really twigged that it's often the pictures selling the book.  If they want to talk about, say, Stick Man, they'll get on Julia Donaldson, not Axel Scheffler. And the media don't really know how to talk about illustration, either; there's no vocabulary.  If they do feature Axel, they'll ask very inane questions such as "Why do people like books with pictures?"

FH: I think it's important to celebrate the people who are doing something, and hold them up as a commendable example for those who are doing a little less.  It's great news that CBBC have their book club; more of that would be very nice.  Maybe other newspapers emulating The Guardian's children's book website.  Maybe people emulating The Sunday Times's decision to expand Nicolette Jones's column.  Just a little more space wouldn't hurt!

PP:  We don't have enough coverage of books per se.  There is no coverage of books at all on the television, which is an absolute disgrace.  From the point of view of the economic importance of the book trade, the vast number of people who read, the growing importance of book clubs and so on, there really ought to be a television programme on a mainstream channel.  And then children's books would be part of it.

"You can write about children's books for an adult audience"

Some people say children's literature isn't literature.  What do you think?

FH: I think a lot of adults don't realise how experimental children's fiction is.  For example, at the moment, I'm reading Sarah Crossan's One, which is a verse novel about Siamese twins, and very funny, and very sensitive, and human and brave and wide-ranging – and also very easy to read.  But I think that's part of the issue.  There's a lurking idea that if something is easy to read, it's somehow worthless, or worth less.  And I don't think that's true.  Writing something that does complicated things but is still readable is very much an art. 

FS: As Philip Pullman says, it's literature for an audience that includes children.  I think Jon Klassen's This Is Not My Hat is a work of absolute genius.  Does that mean I'm infantile?  No, it means I know a good book when I see one.  I chose A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L'Engle as my book for the BBC's A Good Read.  Now, I haven't read A Wrinkle In Time for 45 years, and I remember that book chapter for chapter.  It seared itself into my consciousness.  And children's books do that.  Anyone who's interested in literature should be interested in children's literature.

#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books.  Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag.  Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks! 


  1. Yes, yes, yes, to all the above. Thank you oh wise ones

  2. ERIC!... the hero? by Chris Wormell is a perfect example of a book for children that should be given greater profile. This is a book that should be in every school across the land.

  3. Children incorporate books into their still fluid minds at a cellular level. What a responsibility and what an opportunity for writers, parents and educators. What could be more important than fully and rigorously presenting the offering?